In early August 2017, The University of Redlands Theater Arts Department traveled to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland to perform Big Brother Hamlet, a future-dystopian reimagining of the iconic Shakespeare play. Adapted by the Theater Arts Department’s Professor Christopher Beach, the play uses elements of surveillance technology, government corruption, and computer mapping to create a distinct and ominous theatrical experience.
How did this concept develop into the Orwellian dystopia that audiences at the University and Edinburgh saw onstage? I sat down with Beach, who directed and assumed the role of Claudius, sophomore and multi-part actor Emily Wright, and sophomore Hamlet understudy Brandon Leavitt to discuss the creative process, director and actor experience, and what it was like to perform for a completely foreign audience.
One of the production’s most distinct stage elements, and for me the first ‘wow’ moment of the play, is its portrayal of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who manifests on-stage as a projection of a giant disembodied head. The image was projected on a small portable screen that popped open.
“We collaborated with an alum whose name is Doug Hammett,” Beach said. “He’s a visual artist who also works in the performance art world. He and I had done a couple of collaborations. He brought in the head on a stick one day and said ‘You think it could be a puppet?’ We started to explore that until we realized… what if we video it?”
Once Hammett had created the image, they were faced with the challenge of how to display it onstage.
“There’s an open source software called Qlab,” Beach continued. “That was the other thing I really wanted to experiment with – they call it mapping projection. You can control where the image goes, how big or small it is, how much it moves – which is what we did with those pop-up screens.”
Holding the screen up was one of many responsibilities in the chorus of Hooded Watchers, a group of darkly dressed “instruments of the state” responsible for much of the surveillance portrayed within the play.
“In our collaboration with the costume designer, Debbie Bradford, who saw the May-term workshop, which was really a scramble of ideas,” Beach recalled. “She said, ‘You know when I start thinking about design, I keep thinking of characters who don’t want people to see that they are observing them.’”
Thus was born the work of actors like Wright, who became one of the many in the dark sea of hoods; characters who moved with a hive-mind like precision, pointing surveillance cameras, piloting drones, and spying in the shadows. A strikingly original and ominous take on the play’s original chorus.
Another unique quality of the show were the dual roles Beach undertook, who acted both as director and the show’s Claudius. A decision Leavitt explains “wasn’t initially planned.” Both Wright and Leavitt recall it being “a bit cumbersome,” as they were often forced to act with a filler Claudius during rehearsals so Beach could examine the scene from an outside perspective.
“As the director, he must remain aware of the bigger picture and have a steady grip on the macro,” Leavitt explained. “But as an actor he must be living in the mind of his character and be near meditative on the micro.”
Beach took great care in tending to this balance. “On the one hand, it’s all about ensuring that the students have this opportunity,” Beach stated. “But every once in awhile, it makes sense for the grown up to work with the students.”
Interestingly, it became an almost perfect fit for the cast, as Claudius was one of the few players identified as another generation, a point that Chris made. Beyond Claudius, Gertrude, and Polonius, virtually every character are specifically identified as college age, making the production an especially relatable experience for the cast.
Beach described this project as an enormous undertaking that could have only been possible with the help of others and the creativity they brought to the table. It was this collaborative creative effort that drove the production to its final goal – the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, an event renowned for theatrical innovation.
“That was a huge selling point,” said Wright, when asked how she got involved in the production.
When Beach’s collaborative vision had finally developed into the final product that students and community members first experienced in the University’s very own Glenn Wallichs Theater last Spring, the pressure was on to deliver it to a completely new audience in Edinburgh.
“Having done it at Redlands was very helpful,” Wright explained. “Because I could get the initial character development done, and then I allowed it to sit and germinate for two months over the summer.”
When the company traveled to Scotland’s capital last August, many of the actors had never performed for a foreign audience before, so naturally there were apprehensions. What expectations would a European audience have of a Shakespeare adaptation? However, Leavitt wasn’t too phased by this.
“I wish I could say I knew how to adapt myself in a unique way to suit a different stage,” Leavitt said. “But there wasn’t really too much to it. The only difference I am aware of was a change during the graveyard scene where Hamlet sets up a line differently and the gravedigger uses it to mock the English. We found this to be a fun choice and hopefully our Scottish audiences enjoyed it as well.”
And enjoy it they did. Big Brother Hamlet’s last show sold out.
To Wright, performing what she and the rest of the company had created over the course of several months to an entirely new audience proved to be an exhilarating experience.
“No family members, no other school groups,” Wright explained. “Just strangers who wanted to see it, and that was so exciting.”
Each cast member had personal positive experiences to share, but what they all agreed upon was the creative potential of a production like Big Brother Hamlet. This unique adaptation accompanied by close collaboration with each member of the team, allowed the actors to express their own ideas, crafting versions of time-honored parts, that have never been seen before, and likely will never be seen again.
“There is something special about leaving your mark on a character,” Leavitt shared. “There are many Hamlets and Hamlet productions, but [this one was] mine, and will always be a part of me.”
This Fall, Christopher Beach returns to the director’s chair for the University’s production of Monty Python’s Spamalot, adapted from the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Watch new and returning cast members from Big Brother Hamlet, including Brandon Leavitt and Emily Wright, in a whole new comedic spotlight. Spamalot opens Friday, Nov. 3rd at 8pm in the Glenn Wallichs Theater.
photos courtesy of Ross Thrasher